If you can conjure up an image of Andy Warhol and co. partying at Studio 54 in your head right now, chances are it’s thanks, in part, to Rose Hartman. The octogenarian, New York-born photographer wasn’t alone in capturing the debauchery, but the images she captured decades ago are unlike any other, even as we entered an era where “never seen” photos of Studio 54 seem to surface every few months. “I didn’t want to be repetitive,” Hartman said O on the phone from his apartment in New York. “I never wanted anyone to stand and pose, it would revolt me.” She wanted to be so in the moment that she would only have the chance to take a few shots, sometimes even just one.
This spontaneous approach led Hartman to capture some of the era’s most iconic impromptu moments, the most famous being the 1977 image of Bianca Jagger atop a white horse on her 30th birthday that somehow on the other, does not feel staged. “I’m a documentary photographer,” Hartman continued. “I see someone like Daphne Guinness at a party for David LaChapelle. I’m at the same event, and I stand away from her. I don’t ask her to look my way; I take a picture while she chats in her Philip Treacy veil.The resulting photo is among those on display at the TW Fine Art Gallery in Palm Beach, Fla., through Feb. 22. Here, Hartman reflects on some of the other throwbacks featured in the exhibition, titled “Fatal Womanand tells how she became one of the first fashion week photographers to capture the backstage scene.
How much of your career would you attribute to being in the right place at the right time?
I attended all the fashion shows and loved being there. It was very exciting for me. An example would be once, I looked up and there was J.Lo, just sitting in a seat. Nobody paid attention to her, because of course nobody knew [who she was]. Part of my research was always reading O and all the other fashion journals, so I always knew who was coming and going. I took this picture and it landed on the cover of a magazine because [by then] they really loved him. And then all the other photographers would say, Oh, who is it? Who is it?, and I would be really annoyed and think they were so lazy. No one wanted to do research, but research was a big part.
But I also like to think that I only took very few images of a subject. Bianca on horseback is my best known and most iconic image, and I may have taken two shots. Contrary to what people thought, it wasn’t that she was sitting on that horse for a while. She was on that horse for about three seconds, and then they took the horse and walked out the back of the studio because it was kind of dangerous to have a horse in the middle of the room.
Were you the only photographer present?
No, I’ll tell you the story: I was a fanatical dancer. I’m not bragging, but it was true. I would be there with this particular guy who was a great dancer all the time and we would dance, dance, dance the night away. And at that point, I was hiding my camera and my flash in a huge loudspeaker and I was dancing near the loudspeaker so as not to have the cameras stolen from me by one of the wild people in the studio.
Was it common for the photographers you worked with to be women?
There were about three or four female photographers, but most of the photographers were male. And most of them were very aggressive. It was a very tough business, but I think you can feel it: I’m a pretty tough person. So we could chat, and I’d have a lot of fun chatting with you, but suddenly I see Bianca kissing Mick? Well, I’m not going to talk to you. I’m going to run to where they’re kissing, take the picture, then resume the conversation. That’s what would happen.
How could you take pictures without permission? These days at celebrity events you need to get permission and often only have access to the red carpet.
Yes, it’s awful. It’s a whole other world. And they stand in front of these posters that say “Buy this” or something… So I stopped doing it. I’m the kind of person who wants to be alone. I know what I’m doing, and I’m going to do it. I don’t hang around waiting for, say, an awkward moment like someone lying on the floor – and believe me, there were a lot of people on the floor. I’m waiting for something that would reveal the person, probably show them at their best. Never at worst – I would never want to embarrass the subjects.
What were you wearing when you went there? I imagine you’re trying not to attract attention, but at the same time it looks like you’re having an evening while you work.
It’s a good question. I always tried to be as discreet as possible, so I only wore black. I would basically be in black pants, a black jacket, maybe a nice pin. I would be aware that I was going to go out and look good, but I never wanted to attract attention.
I wanted to ask you about Kristen McMenamy’s photo, which really stands out. It almost sounds like a magazine editorial.
It was at a party for Seduce magazine in SoHo. She was on the cover, so she just picked up the magazine. This is a perfect example: I was next to her and took the picture. All I’m trying to say is I never know what’s going to happen. Did I know she would take the magazine and put it in front of her face? No I didn’t. I loved her, I think she’s a great role model.
And the photo of Kate Moss?
It was a [John] Galliano fashion show on the top floor of Bergdorf Goodman. There were a lot of very interesting people—you know, Anna Wintour, André Leon Talley. I was invited and I couldn’t believe the models that were in this show. It was just extraordinary. I think it’s because Anna [Wintour] really liked Galliano, and I’m sure she said to those models, “You better be out there promoting it.”
It’s amazing to me that you were among the first photographers to shoot backstage at fashion shows. How did you start with this?
Really simple: I had relationships with the fashion designers’ PR people, so they would give me an invitation or a pass that allowed me to go behind the scenes. I was interested in doing that, and most photographers weren’t. They were all in front of the house. I remember eating sandwiches and being very happy, because I was shooting all day and it was really exhausting.
You were also very early in the photography of Jean-Michel Basquiat.
I did not know him at all, nor of him. I always went to openings in SoHo, and he had a show with Warhol. I knew this woman, a female artist, who said, “You should take a picture of this guy. He’s going to be famous, I swear. So I said, “Okay,” and I took a picture. And then Sotheby’s used it in the catalog, because if you look behind it, the image behind it is his famous painting that probably sold for, like, $50 million. It was just by chance, honestly. I never would have taken the picture because I had no idea who he was – he was just a kid standing there.
Last thing: What’s the story behind Andy Warhol’s photo?
He was just standing there, supposedly drinking milk. I thought he was really well dressed for a change, and that of course appealed to me, because he was also a fantastic performer.
Do you think he was really drinking milk from a wine glass?
Well, a lot of people told me he never drank alcohol and he was white. This is something I will never know for sure.